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pyeongchang 2018

American skier Lindsey Vonn, who once completely dominated her sport, missed the Super G podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics after a brief misstep on the way down.Pier Marco Tacca/The Associated Press

At the Winter Olympics, winning is sweet, but failure is spectacular. Speed skaters crash into contorted messes of limbs and blades. Aerial skiers plunge headfirst into a snow-covered cliff. Luge drivers carom down the track. Outmatched hockey players watch scores stack up against them.

Losing is painful, occasionally horrific and, for many Olympians, inevitable.

The Olympics draw the world's elite athletes into a mathematical likelihood of failure. In Pyeongchang, 2,493 athletes are competing for 222 gold medals. The near certainty that loss will plague even top-ranked competitors has produced an entire subset of elite sports psychology devoted to losing – pushing athletes to conjure defeat and how to emerge without being crushed.

"We have to learn to lose," says Samuel Girard, the short-track speed skater who won his first gold Saturday.

This is not the standard Olympic narrative. To the medalists go the hardware, the spotlight and the money.

But for athletes, even those at the top, losing is an inescapable part of the Games. Lindsey Vonn missed the super G podium on Saturday after a brief misstep on the way down. The world's top skaters and curlers are posting nerve-racking losses. The Canadian men's hockey team fell to the Czech Republic; the United States lost to Slovenia and was blanked 4-0 by Russia. The Canadian women's curlers lost their first three straight games; on Sunday, Switzerland gave the men's curlers their second loss.

Elsewhere are those who come to the Olympics knowing, statistically speaking, that their chances are dim.

Some represent countries without natural snow. Some are rookies with ambitions for the next Games, seeking personal bests and an Olympic high.

Others, such as South Korea's hockey teams, are host country squads facing off against the world's greats. At the Olympics, the South Korean women's team has been outscored 22-1 in four games. The men's team fell 8-0 to Switzerland on Saturday, only to suit up Sunday against Canada, the defending Olympic champion. No bookmaker would have given them good odds.

But for the team, preparing meant pushing the idea of losing far from mind.

Players on Team Canada "tie their skates the same way we do. They're human, they're not superheroes," Team Korea forward Mike Testwuide said. "And you know, we have to go out there with that mentality that we can skate with anybody."

Added coach Jim Paek: "Our guys already have that in them, the will to compete. Hockey is a funny game, you never know what can happen. But if you compete and work hard, you never know."

South Korea lost 4-0.

Paek, however, bristled at the idea of preparing for a poor result. "Why would you go into a game thinking you're going to lose?" he said. "To go in with a mindset like that, you're dead in the water, right. Never, never, ever."

Losing, for obvious reasons, carries a stigma.

"I'm going to pass on this," a representative with U.S. Ski & Snowboard said when asked about how coaches steel competitors for unavoidable disappointment.

"Coaches never prepare for a loss," said Gershon Tenenbaum, a Florida State University scholar who is co-editor of Handbook of Sport Psychology, a leading reference volume on the subject. "If you prepare for a loss you prime a loss," he said. "It's better to prepare for 'do your best' rather than 'the loss is unavoidable.' Athletes always believe they can win, also against opponents that are objectively superior to them."

And, of course, no athlete is keen on defeat. "I'm on record as being a sore loser. I hate losing," quarterback Cam Newton said in 2016, after losing at the Super Bowl. "You show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

But in Pyeongchang, some of the top athletes have trained under the maxim that it also takes a good loser to be a winner.

Sports psychologist Fabien Abejean has spent much of the past decade preparing Canadian athletes for Olympic games.

"Preparing for failing" is something he does regularly with Olympians, including the Canadian short track speed skating team in Pyeongchang.

That's not to say expecting to lose.

But learning how to endure defeat is becoming an important part of how athletes prepare.

After a loss, "there's a big difference between being disappointed and being destroyed," Abejean said.

To keep that from happening he works with athlete to instill a personal "philosophy" – a desire to learn, perhaps, or to show unceasing intensity – that they can fall back on after a loss. He encourages athletes, too, to broaden outside of sport. If being an athlete is everything in your life but you "don't get the medal, you stop existing," he said. "And that's the worst."

In recent years, however, he has added another powerful tool: imagery. The idea of visualizing success is by now commonplace. But in recent years, psychologists have also begun to lead athletes through a very different process. It involves "doing imagery, but of the bad things that are going to happen," Abejean said.

He wants athletes to put themselves through the ugliness of failure – the stress, the sweating, the pain, the vomiting. Then they imagine how to deal with it. "You need to be ready to not be successful," Abejean says.

Some balk at the idea. "It's a little bit disturbing for them – they say, 'We are not supposed think about failing. We just want to focus on the positive.'"

But, "if you know you can deal with failure or difficulties during the race, you will be more confident and trust yourself," Abejean says. "You will have the tools."

Talking about "grit" has become a cliché, but "losing is much more common in sport than winning so if a performer cannot respond well, they simply will not make it," said John Perry, a scholar at Mary Immaculate College who is author of Sport Psychology: A Complete Introduction.

"Positive emotions are good for performance and negative ones are bad for performance."

Even for top athletes, though, managing that takes conscious effort.

"We are here to win," Girard said. "And if you're just thinking about your loss or your fall, all you will remember are bad moments."